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The global tobacco industry – worried about Western Australia

Media release

A Curtin University of Technology research program has identified some of the ways in which the world’s biggest tobacco companies monitored developments in Western Australia for more than 50 years.

Australian Medical Association WA President Professor Gary Geelhoed has launched a report from Curtin’s WA Tobacco Document Searching Program, entitled, “We are still not yet out of the woods in W.A.”: Western Australia and the international tobacco industry”.

“This report is a fascinating record of why tobacco companies feared WA becoming a world leader in tobacco reform,” said Professor Geelhoed.

“Unfortunately, we lost momentum for some years but it’s encouraging that in recent times WA politicians have been determined to regain the lead and put the health of the community above all other considerations.”

Curtin Professor of Health Policy, Mike Daube, emphasised the importance of learning from the past.

“We now know just how worried the international tobacco industry was about developments in WA – and with good reason,” he said.

“We know what the industry thought might affect their sales, and how much they lobbied to prevent any effective action.

“This industry has not gone away. They will continue to monitor and lobby, so it is important that we learn from the past as that is the best guide to their future behaviour.”

The issues consistently of most concern to tobacco company executives over more than 50 years were:

  • Restrictions on tobacco advertising and sponsorship;
  • Tax increases;
  • Strong health warnings;
  • Litigation;
  • Activities of health organisations and tobacco control advocates;
  • Position of politicians and political parties on tobacco issues;
  • Establishment of the WA Health Promotion Foundation (Healthway);
  • Establishment of smoke-free areas;
  • Public education campaigns.

The report,”We are still not yet out of the woods in W.A.”: Western Australia and the international tobacco industry is available to download from http://healthsciences.curtin.edu.au/watdsp/

Note to Editor:

Internal tobacco industry documents now accessible following litigation in the United States, show that the most senior tobacco company executives in New York and London were kept fully informed about developments in WA in relation to policies, governmental actions, media, health organisations and even individuals and were concerned about WA’s role as a national leader.

The report shows that tobacco control activities in WA were very closely monitored by the companies’ headquarters.

Monitoring included regular reports from West Australian and national company executives, public relations reports, media reports, political reports, and even a distinguished scientist, ostensibly in WA for research purposes, who was a generously funded consultant sending confidential reports to the Philip Morris company on developments in the State.

The companies were deeply concerned about measures such as advertising bans and tax increases, and especially worried about action from WA that might spread into the Eastern States. The international industry’s monitoring of tobacco control developments in WA can be traced back to at least 1957, and has clearly continued into the 2000s.

Concerns in internal memos are typified by comments from senior tobacco company executives in the US about reports on WA proposals for stronger health warnings in the 90s:

“This doesn’t sound good at all…They are taking the lead!! This will spread elsewhere. Don’t want to sound alarmist BUT I am alarmed”.

“More sensitive issues…we need to deal with the West Australian labelling problem which has some chance of spreading to South Australia and the A.C.T. (Canberra). It is imperative that this initiative be stopped”; and,

“I had not realized that potentially it was so imminent. Of course, this is quite a set back and our task now is to prevent its spreading to other States… I am sure you understand my concern and that I am grasping for straws of hope”.